Car thefts are rising. Here’s how thieves could steal your ride, and how to stop them.

This 'mystery device' can unlock and start your vehicle

The National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) says new technology is being used to not only unlock and open vehicles, but to also start and steal them.
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The National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) says new technology is being used to not only unlock and open vehicles, but to also start and steal them.

Car thieves are making a comeback.

After years of decline, motor vehicle thefts are on the rise again in North Carolina. The rate of thefts rose 13.1 percent in the state last year, even as the overall rate of property crimes such as burglary and larceny declined, according to the latest crime statistics released by the State Bureau of Investigation.

The spike ends a dramatic decade-long decrease in car thefts in the state and nationwide. The rate of motor vehicle thefts per capita is still less than half what it was in 2006, largely because of anti-theft technology that made cars harder to steal.

Those who work to prevent auto thefts and catch thieves are still trying to determine why the momentum has shifted, but they say new technology is likely a factor. A year ago, the National Insurance Crime Bureau, an industry group, warned about devices that allow thieves to intercept and relay the signals from your key fob to your car, allowing them to unlock and start it while you and your fob are walking away or inside your home.

Raleigh police have not encountered any relay devices or other sophisticated technology being used to steal vehicles in the city, said Lt. D.B. Dunmyre, who oversees property crimes in the detective bureau. But then again, he said, it’s not uncommon for stolen cars or trucks to be found later without any visible signs of how they were stolen.

Anti-theft tech helps

Keyless entry systems, or smart keys, were actually one of the technologies that helped bring about the decline in auto thefts starting in the late 1990s, says Frank Scafidi, spokesman for the National Insurance Crime Bureau. Another was ignition immobilizers, which prevent the engine from starting or running without the key and all but eliminate the classic “hot-wiring” seen in old movies.

More common use of alarm systems and GPS tracking devices that help locate stolen vehicles have also discouraged thieves, as has better enforcement by police, Scafidi said. Among the techniques used by law enforcement now, he said, are cameras on patrol cars that automatically scan every license plate they see, alerting officers when they come across one that has been reported stolen.

“There’s just many more opportunities not only to discover stolen vehicles but also to apprehend vehicles driven by theft suspects,” Scafidi said.

Every year, Scafidi’s group publishes a list of the most commonly stolen vehicles in the country, and for years the list has been dominated by the top-selling cars and trucks from the 1990s, before anti-theft technology became common. Even in 2016, the most commonly stolen cars in the country were the 1997 Honda Accord and the 1998 Honda Civic. More than 7,500 1997 Accords were stolen last year, compared to only 493 2016 Accords, according to the bureau’s report.

The overall crime rate in North Carolina has declined by about a third in the last decade; it ticked down slightly in 2016, despite a 5.2 percent increase in the rate of violent crimes, including murder, rape, robbery and assault.

Crime of opportunity

But no category of crime has declined as dramatically as motor vehicle thefts. In 2006, law enforcement agencies in North Carolina handled 29,670 stolen vehicle cases, according to the SBI. In 2015, they handled only 13,156, even as the state’s population grew by more than 1 million.

Last year, the number of stolen vehicles rose to 15,007. In Raleigh, where the number of stolen vehicle cases rose 14 percent to 740, police can’t point to any obvious explanations, Dunmyre said.

“There’s not enough of anything specific to say this is it,” he said. “We see the same consistency in activity.”

Dunmyre and others say many cars and trucks are stolen in part because their drivers let their guard down. Col. Steven Watkins, head of the license and theft bureau at the state Division of Motor Vehicles, says carelessness is a factor in about half of vehicle thefts in North Carolina, as when someone leaves a car unlocked overnight or a driver leaves his car running when he runs in to a convenience store or back into the house on a cold morning.

“It’s a crime of opportunity,” Watkins said.

At the same time, law enforcement agencies are also seeing more sophisticated thieves who steal cars with the goal of reselling them, rather than cutting them up for parts or simply taking them for a ride. Lt. Brandon Lemons, a district supervisor with the DMV theft bureau, described a scheme uncovered a couple of years ago in which high-end cars were stolen in New York, shipped to Georgia where they were given new vehicle identification numbers and then sent to Durham to be sold.

“We recovered five or six $40,000 vehicles. They were selling them for $12,000,” Lemons said. “The crooks are able to make more money off our vehicles now.”

Richard Stradling: 919-829-4739, @RStradling

To foil a thief

Here are some strategies for frustrating car thieves:

▪ Park in a busy, well-lit place if possible; roll up your windows all the way, lock your door and take the key.

▪ Hide your valuables. Thieves will be more likely to break in to your vehicle if they see something that entices them.

▪ If you’re going to leave your car running, make sure that it’s locked. Police say thieves take advantage of people who are warming their cars up on cold winter mornings.

▪ Install an alarm.

▪ Install a tracking system that uses GPS or radio signals to determine where your vehicle is located if it is reported stolen.

▪ Take pictures of your car or truck, from different angles. If your car is stolen, these will help authorities track it down.

▪ Don’t leave the title in your vehicle. Thieves can sometimes put off a law enforcement officer if they present a title.

▪ Consider getting a specially designed sleeve or pocket in which to store your key fob when you’re not using it. These are available online and will prevent someone from intercepting the signal that your fob sends to your vehicle.

Most commonly stolen cars nationwide, 2016

1. 1997 Honda Accord

2. 1998 Honda Civic

3. 2006 Ford Pickup (full size)

4. 2004 Chevrolet Pickup (full size)

5. 2016 Toyota Camry

6. 2015 Nissan Altima

7. 2001 Dodge pickup (full size)

8. 2015 Toyota Corolla

9. 2008 Chevrolet Impala

10. 2000 Jeep Cherokee/Grand Cherokee

Source: National Insurance Crime Bureau